With the Outlaw and the Upstart King, Rod Duncan veered away from steampunk style plot and setting. The feudal, political coup plot that seemed like it belonged in a fantasy novel, only it had no magic. It was a great story in a very well-developed land with a fascinating political system. It just wasn’t what I expected when I started reading.
The story more or less picked up where the previous book, The Queen of All Crows, left off, but Outlaw and the Upstart King hardly felt like part of the series. There were tie-ins, but a reader could also pick up that book and read it as a stand-alone, or without having read any of the other books in the series and still appreciate. They only things they might not get were the importance of the “big reveal” of Elizabeth’s identity, fleeting references to other characters, and vague hints at how this connected to plots to bring down the Gaslit Empire. These things were subtle enough that they wouldn’t ruin the story for a new reader, but they reminded those of us who have read the whole story that this book was indeed part of it.
The Outlaw and the Upstart King followed two characters, Elias and of course, the heroine of the series, Elizabeth Barnabus. The first part of the book was from Elias’ point-of-view, though there was a character who came in and out of the picture that I suspected was Elizabeth. At the end of Part 1, I learned I was right. Elizabeth was indeed that character. Up to this point, I’d been frustrated that I hadn’t seen anything from Elizabeth’s point of view. And while it was interesting to see the next chapter recap what had happened so far from her point of view, it was a technique I think works a little better in movies than books.
Elias is a fascinating character for sure. He has clear motives and through a balance of flashbacks, action, and internal thought, the reader knows why he has those motives and how they formed. I loved how he wasn’t a “good guy” but I still wanted him to succeed, to grow, and learn to see himself how others saw him. Watching him intellectually spar with Elizabeth was also entertaining.
However, I wanted a little more from some of the other characters. Julia was mentioned, but kept passive and out of sight for the whole book. She didn’t really do anything other than be one of Elizabeth’s motivations until the the climax had passed and she was assisting in the resolution. Tinker was there more, blending in mostly, but he didn’t do anything of importance. In previous books, he used his ability to move around unnoticed to help with whatever Elizabeth plans in some significant way. This time, he didn’t, at least not in any way I noticed.
In the end, it was clear how this did connect to some of the larger, political movements that were happening between the Gas-Lit empire and the nations outside it, however, that felt much further in the background than in previous books. The benefit of it was that it did allow more of a focus on character development and the more immediate action.
One thing I’ve always loved about this series is how it explores gender and gender roles. Back in England, within the Gas-Lit empire, society certainly was male dominated. However, it was social norms, laws, and a sense propriety that suppressed woman. Elizabeth grew up in a circus, outside the some many social and cultural norms, so she was less influenced by them and more independent than other woman around her. Her resistance to the role women were forced into and a need to live independently drove Elizabeth to use skills she developed in her father’s show to create a second-male identity: a brother she pretended to live with.
Watching Elizabeth slip back and forth between man and woman was what originally helped me connect with her. I always read her as genderfluid even though as the books went on, her male identity was used less and less.
In this book, it was non-existent.
In the culture this story happened in, women were oppressed as much as London, though in different ways. In the Outlaw and the Upstart King , a single woman owned and ran an inn/tavern and promiscuity seemed more acceptable. However, here, perhaps more than in any other place Elizabeth has been, women were objects subject to the whims of physically stronger men.
Elizabeth was dependent on and/or under the control of men throughout the book, forever playing the part of a woman, and really feeling like a side character in her own book. This was Elias’ story, not Elizabeths.
If I was a new reader with no attachment to Elizabeth, I would give this book five stars because it was beautifully written and clearly well researched. The plot was well executed. The world richly developed.
However, I’m used to seeing Elizabeth in control and in charge not matter how bad the situation got, and it killed me to see her with so little agency, only able to influence the outcome of events in subtle, typically female ways.